I have an awesome husband who loves Jesus and me passionately, shares the chores, partners with me in raising the kids, and we work together in ministry. My kids are pretty good, too, probably above average. They do well in school, love the Lord and actually sort of like hanging out with us. People tell us we have a great family, and I agree.
Still with all of this, I am overwhelmed in raising my teenagers. Though I have Jesus, a great husband and kids, youth ministry skills, and a lot of support, I am pretty certain that at some point I will do irreparable damage to their psyches. A friend of mine says the only surefire way not to mess up your kids is to not have any. There is so much to navigate in raising teens: bullying, self-esteem issues, academics, scheduling, friends, the talk, ever-changing technology, pop culture influences, social media, choices, faith—all before breakfast. Study after study tells us that our kids want parents to be present more than anything else and we are the greatest influencers in their lives. Yet, it never feels that way. They seem to ignore us until something breaks.
So I found myself feeling this way one day when a teen’s mom said to me, “At least as a youth pastor you sort of get these teen years. Talking about Jesus, faith and teen issues are intuitive to you. You have a skill set here. I don’t even know how to think the way you do. I don’t understand my kids at all.”
The U.S. Census Bureau shows that four out of 10 children are born to unwed mothers and 3 million of the nation’s grandparents have the primary care of their grandchildren. The U.S. Fatherhood Initiative boasts that one in three children will grow up without a dad in the home, and the American Sociological Review tells us that 40 to 50 percent of kids will witness one or more divorces in their lifetimes. What about these parents? Did they feel inadequate?
I started to see a connection between myself as a parent and the way I approached parents of students in my ministry. In my first years of youth ministry, I believed it was my job to be the primary spiritual influence in the life of a teen. Then it hit me: No matter how much time I spent with any of my students, at some point they still went home. I thought I was taking a partnering approach when I offered some parent classes and programs they could attend. Yet, if I were honest, I didn’t believe every parent was competent to raise their children much less disciple them. This made me compartmentalize which parents I genuinely trusted to pass faith onto their children. Instead of partnering with parents, I judged them. It was easy to do when students told me not to bother reaching out to their folks. At best, I heard they were workaholics, uninterested or distant. At worst, I was told they were non-existent, addicts or just plain jerks. It was rare that I actually went out of my way to get to know many parents. It was easy when we picked up students, they came with friends or parents didn’t have to get out of their cars when dropping kids off or picking them up from youth group.
All these thoughts, events and life experiences led to an incredible epiphany. Sometimes I believed God loved the students more than He loved the parents. I pondered, “How would my ministry change if I embraced reaching the whole family, every family, no matter what, seeing them as Christ does with a visionary eye of who they are in Him?” I needed to stop partnering with parents philosophically (while complaining about how permission slips were ignored and students were picked up late) and figure out how partnership looked practically. I needed to assess honestly where my heart was and see what it meant to walk with the whole family. Here’s where I started.
I Changed My Attitude
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is literally where I had to begin. I realized I had been approaching youth ministry backward. I thought the parents were blessed to have me. I was there to fill in gaps where they failed. For some students, I had become the replacement. These were the ones I thought needed to see how better parenting looked. When their parents let them down, they could look to me instead of the ones with whom they lived. In the lives of others, I became a type of savior. They could call me for anything, anytime, and I would fix it. However, in this view, I failed to see parents (such as myself) who often thought they weren’t enough and at times just didn’t know how to show their teenagers how much they loved them. God revealed to me that when I tried to step into the parental position in any way, I inadvertently was making the situation worse. It caused parents at times to believe they actually could pass their roles on to me. I admit I had been listening mostly to one side of the family story—that of the students. It was time to treat the people in the parental roles with the respect and honor they deserved. They didn’t have to allow me to have a relationship with their children, and I realized spending any time with their kids was a privilege. Instead of becoming the replacement or savior, maybe the students and families needed something else. Youth Specialties Founder Mike Yaconelli spoke years ago about surrounding students as an extended family, becoming older siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. When I started seeing myself as someone who could be a part of the family, aiding my ministry changed radically.
I Built Genuine Relationships
For years, I had put together different activities for parents and then get frustrated when they didn’t show up. I knew I had to change my approach. Yet, there was no way I could partner with every parent singlehandedly in practical ways. So, I got my team on board with this idea, as well. We asked, “How do we build relationships with parents?” before we planned anything. One huge revelation our team had was that parents wanted more from us than merely communicating when we need something from them. We had to get creative and not be afraid to try almost anything if it meant we could build relationships. One way we started was by creating a get-to-know-you system before and after programming. It was simple: Our team went to parents (sometimes in their cars) with something for them such as a cup of coffee, and then would just say a quick word of thanks for bringing their child. As we built relationships, we tried something totally crazy. Each small group leader called the parents of the students in his or her group, thanked them for allowing him or her to be the leader of that parent’s child and then shared something he or she thought was incredible about that specific kid. Each call took less than 90 seconds, and it worked! We learned every parent wants to hear the ways their child succeeds. We learned as we went deeper with the parents that they were willing to be more open about their needs and struggles. Our definition of success flipped from: “How many showed up at a group meeting?” to “How many families are being transformed?”
I Got Students and Parents More Connected
We were changing our attitudes and building relationships, but the reality was that balancing student and parenting ministry could be complicated. As much as I had once focused too much on the youth, now students felt as if we only cared about their parents. I wondered if I was trying to feel better about my own teens at home by connecting with the adults. It was easy to provoke students to complain about their parents. What I learned was the average student didn’t really know how to tell their parents they wanted them around while maintaining their ability to grow independently. They may have heard, “Honor your parents,” but didn’t realize there’s no, “If they are worth it” disclaimer. They didn’t know how to honor their parents—or communicate with them in meaningful ways. We embarked on an adventure that taught students ways to connect at home. One time, we encouraged students in the week after youth group to intentionally spend 15 minutes with their parents. The only rule was it couldn’t be a time when they usually would be with them anyway, such as driving somewhere. They had to seek out their parents and report back the following week. This small act shifted parent-child dynamics at home. One boy just sat on the couch and watched a movie with his dad, while they talked about life. Neither he nor his father could remember the last time they had spent two hours together.
As my teens grow and I stay in family ministry, it’s a continual journey in learning the best way to do effective youth ministry. It’s a balance. In my current ministry context, I live in an inner city community where about 75 percent of the families either one parent or extended family is raising the children. We continually are trying new things. Getting to know the families has made me see them in a whole new light. As youth leaders, we can forget that all parents and students, including those who seem to have it all together, long for encouragement. Everyone needs to hear that no matter who we are, God can take our families and make them amazing. I guess maybe I am becoming the youth leader I need to have in my own life.
Leneita Fix has been involved in youth or family ministry for more than 22 years, serving in rural, suburban and urban settings, camps, small and large churches and non-profits. She has authored or coauthored several youth ministry books, including Everybody’s Urban: Understanding the Survival Mode of the Next Generation, and contributes to several youth ministry websites and curriculum companies, including LeaderTreks, Simply Youth Ministry, LifeTree Family, Download Youth Ministry, Bright Hope Ministries, ParentMinisty.net, InWord and YM360. She is the ministry and training coordinator for BowDown Church, cofounded a coaching and training organization called Frontline Urban Resources (EverybodysUrban.org) and lives with her amazing husband, John, and four children in Florida.